There are certain actors that just have that special ability to play the “jerk” role in movies. In the ’80s, I feel nobody did it better than William Atherton with his roles in Ghostbusters (1984), Real Genius (1985) & Die Hard (1988) in particular. If you don’t believe me, please read part one of this piece on how William Atherton played the best movie jerk of the ’80s. Coming in a close second (or maybe even tied for best) is James Spader. It seems at a relatively young age, Spader was also able to masterfully embody the “jerk” character in several ’80s films.
We’re not really talking about the stereotypical “bully” role because that recognition would go to William Zabka in the ’80s for his work in The Karate Kid (1984), Just One of the Guys (1985) and Back to School (1986). While Atherton had his own trifecta of “jerk” roles during the decade, you will be reminded of four particular roles Spader played during the ’80s. Like Atherton, Spader is able to radiate a slimy, despicable vibe that makes you immediately dislike him before you even know that much about him. Spader will add a little creepiness to many of his characters to really put them over the top.
Spader’s first major film role was in the film Endless Love (1981) and his first starring role was in 1985’s Tuff Turf, though in neither of those did he play a jerk. But next, in a lesser-known film, Spader played “Eddie Dutra” in 1985’s The New Kids. When we first meet “Dutra” he is just a creepy jerk harassing Lori Loughlin’s character. But it turns out that he is also a violent gang leader who becomes vicious when he doesn’t get what he wants. “You want crazy? Well, I’ll show you crazy.” This early scene really shows off Spader’s ability to play this type of role…
Next up, Spader plays the teenage asshole “Steff” in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. Spader was actually 25 years old when they filmed and admittedly looks quite old to be a high school student (though that was common during the ’80s). I would consider Pretty in Pink to be the highlight of his jerk roles during the decade. Spader oozes arrogance and superiority just like I am sure “Steff” was supposed to in this story of love and social economics. The scene when “Steff” is leaning on Molly Ringwald’s car really helps clarify his character.
Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a video clip of this scene. “Steff” develops a dislike for “Andie” because she sees through him. This conversation ends with Steff saying, “You know, I’ve been out with a lot of girls at this school. I don’t see what makes you so different.” Andie replies, “Well, I have taste.” Then Steff puts a cigarette in his mouth and retorts, “You’re a bitch.”
Later “Steff” has this conversation with Andrew McCarthy’s “Blane” which furthers the audience’s dislike for the character as he tries to talk him out of seeing “Andie” because she comes from a different economic situation…
Later at school, Steff catches Blane in the hallway and continues his attempt to talk him out of seeing Andie. Steff actually tells him, “That girl was, is, and will always be nada!”
“Duckie” happens to overhear “Steff” speaking badly about “Andie” and he reaches a pivotal moment. Just the way Steff asks, “You got a problem, friend?” in that white linen suit makes you hate him even more. You can see it boil over in Duckie as he attacks him. The audience is cheering for Duckie to give Steff what he deserves. Spader adds a nice touch at the very end when he spits a little blood on the floor.
At the very end things wrap up at the Prom. Steff tries to get in one more jerk moment, but this time Blane has had enough and speaks his realization that, “She thinks you’re shit. And deep down, you know she’s right.”
I wasn’t able to get video clips of all of the scenes that Spader shows off his smarminess, but you might enjoy this compilation someone else put together called “The Steff Edit”…
As I said, “Steff” in Pretty in Pink is the epitome of James Spader playing a jerk, but it wouldn’t be his last. Next up, Spader plays “Mr. Richards” in 1987’s Mannequin. He is the oily, unlikable store manager that is forced to hire Andrew McCarthy’s character.
Look at that greasy comb-over hair style. It just helps add to his obnoxious persona along with lines like, “You people that work at night scare me.” Here is a scene where Richards joins the night security guard to try to steal the mannequin…
Spader’s character gets fired and arrested at the end of Mannequin, so the “jerk” gets what he deserves just like in most ’80s movies. Next up, Spader played the role of “Ken Arrenberg” in 1987’s Baby Boom starring Diane Keaton. He is not a huge jerk in this one, though he does undermine Keaton’s character to steal her account away from her while she is distracted by having to care for a baby. That was followed by playing “Rip” in 1987’s Less Than Zero. This guy is a real piece of trash and Spader is perfectly cast in this role. Also if you’re counting, this is the third film noted here with both James Spader and Andrew McCarthy together. “Rip” is an old classmate of Robert Downey Jr., Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz’s characters and now is a drug dealer. Downey’s “Julian” is a drug addict who has been cut off by his family and has gone into debt to his dealer “Rip”.
Another great hair choice with that slicked-back look adding to his persona. Like most drug dealers, “Rip” doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for those that owe him money. At one point he tells them, “This is not recess. Everyone is accountable.” As Julian’s addiction worsens and since he does not have the money to pay off his debt, Rip forces him to become a prostitute to work it off. When Julian tries to tell Rip he is going to try to get sober, Rip doesn’t accept it and even lures Julian to a Christmas party for affluent gay men to continue working off his debt.
Less Than Zero is a depressing tale of a certain youth culture existing in Los Angeles at the time based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis. Unlike so many of the ’80s films with happy endings, this one shows the potential consequences of narcissism and an excessive lifestyle.
Spader had a few other roles, but then finished up the decade with two films in 1989. In Sex, Lies and Videotape, Spader plays more of a creepy troubled character rather than a jerk. He definitely can bring the eccentric just as well as he brings the jerkiness. His final role of the ’80s was in a British film as “DeForest” in 1989’s The Rachel Papers. Not a well-known film especially in America, but Spader delivers his typically superb performance as a control freak boyfriend who treats Ione Skye’s character badly. It is only fitting that he employs some of those same smarmy, condescending mannerisms that worked so well previously in Pretty in Pink and other roles.
Similar to Atherton, the intense feeling of loathing and contempt that Spader is able to create for his characters when he wants to is quite impressive. Though I disliked all of these characters, I really do admire Spader as an actor for being able to make me feel that way. It takes a special kind of actor to accept and excel in those antagonist parts knowing that they will draw the ire of the viewers.
Spader went on to continue to play some jerks after the ’80s as well. “Stewart Swinton” in 1994’s Wolf with Jack Nicholson is one to note. One of the more memorable ones for me was as “Jason Hanky” in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. Then, of course, he was the voice and mannerisms behind “Ultron” in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (where he was able to torment Robert Downey Jr.’s character again like he did in Less Than Zero). The good news is that James Spader the person is reportedly not-at-all like the jerky, despicable, villainous characters he often plays. Nearly everyone who knows him or has worked with him has described him as a wonderfully fine and kind gentleman.
There are other actors who play the “jerk” well, but in my opinion, nobody does it quite as masterfully as William Atherton did it back in the ’80s, but James Spader is probably a very close second.